May 28, 2006

Riding With (And Beating) The King

Get on a TWA to the promised land
Every woman, child, and man
Gets a Cadillac or a great big diamond ring
Don't you know you're riding with The King?

- John Hiatt, Riding With The King

I managed to stay away from the Metrodome for the Twins' first 22 home games of the season, but Friday night's Felix Hernandez-Francisco Liriano matchup was far more than I was willing to pass up in the name of not watching baseball indoors.

Ranked second behind only Joe Mauer among my Top 50 Prospects of 2005, Hernandez made the case last season for being the best teenage pitcher since Dwight Gooden, blowing through the minors before posting a 2.67 ERA in a dozen starts with the Mariners. No slouch himself, Liriano ranked third behind only Delmon Young and Ryan Zimmerman among my Top 50 Prospects of 2006 after posting a 2.67 ERA and 204-to-50 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 27 starts between Double-A and Triple-A last year.

Hernandez, now 20 years old, was baseball's premiere pitching prospect heading into last season. Liriano, now 22 years old, was baseball's best pitching prospect heading into this season. I may be frustrated by the Twins of late and despise the warehouse that they call a ballpark, but it's not often in baseball history that a show like Hernandez-Liriano has come to town.

After living up to what may have been unmatched hype as a 19-year-old, King Felix has shown that he's human this season by coming into Friday's game with a 5.84 ERA while somehow allowing opponents to bat over .300 against him despite stuff that is second-to-none. Meanwhile, Liriano began the season by tossing 22.1 innings with a 3.22 ERA and 32 strikeouts out of the bullpen before the Twins moved him into the rotation on May 19. He turned in five innings of two-hit ball in his first start.

In many ways Liriano is where Hernandez was last season--a young pitcher on top of the world, blowing away overmatched big-league hitters who are getting their first real look at him. Hernandez is where Liriano--or any great young hurler--might eventually be, struggling to figure out what will work for him against those same, suddenly capable big-league hitters over the long haul.

Given those plot lines and the level of talent involved, perhaps the only way the Hernandez-Liriano matchup could have lived up to my expectations would have been with matching perfect games. They didn't quite provide that sort of show, but I came away from the game convinced that the experience is something I might look back on when they're each going into the Hall of Fame in 25 years or so.

The final pitching lines looked like this:

                 IP     H     R     ER     BB     SO     HR     PIT
Liriano 5.0 4 0 0 1 6 0 83
Hernandez 7.0 5 3 3 1 8 1 104

Liriano was masterful from the first pitch, and only a lack of stamina from beginning the year in the bullpen limited him to five shutout innings. He threw strikes with his fastball and made hitters look silly chasing his slider down and out of the strike zone. On the other hand, Hernandez watched several balls maneuver their way through the defense for hits despite not being particularly well-struck early, and then Mauer smacked a solo homer on a chest-high fastball with one out in the third inning to make the score 3-0 Twins.

After the pitch to Mauer that ended up sailing over the fence in right-center field, here's how King Felix finished the game:

 IP     H     R     ER     BB     SO     HR
4.2 0 0 0 0 7 0

Unfazed by Mauer's homer--or perhaps motivated by it--Hernandez retired 14 straight hitters. In doing so he worked so quickly and seemingly effortlessly that I'd be shocked if most of the 28,000 fans in attendance really noticed. Hernandez's overall line was good (7 IP, 3 ER, 5 H, 8 SO), but it's the way he so thoroughly dominated after Mauer went deep that showed why his future remains as bright as any in baseball.

From my 14th-row seat along the first-base line I had a good view of where pitches crossed the plate vertically. Liriano consistently worked the bottom half of the strike zone, and got hitters to swing through balls that started low and got even lower as they either dove away or rode in on the batter. Hernandez seemed to work more up and down, and the pitches he gave up hits on were significantly higher in the strike zone than most of Liriano's offerings.

Once Hernandez settled in he also began to work low, although his pitches appeared to have less side-to-side movement than Liriano's. All of which makes sense, given that Hernandez is an extreme ground-ball pitcher and Liriano is merely a regular ground-ball pitcher. Hernandez's pitches plow through the bottom of the strike zone as they drop, while Liriano's pitches sort of scoot away from bats as they slice through the plate.

I've watched Hernandez on television as often as possible, and many times his mechanics seem somewhat out of whack. In particular he's shown a tendency in the past to fall off the mound with his follow-through. Friday night his delivery looked smooth and easy, almost like he was going at half-speed, and Hernandez didn't have a single exaggerated, Francisco Rodriguez-like follow-through in seven innings.

It's difficult to say for certain given how many lesser pitchers have looked like Cy Young Award winners against the Twins over the past two years, but I wouldn't be surprised if Friday's start is the beginning of Hernandez getting back on track. As David Cameron writes at The Hardball Times today, the root of Hernandez's problems this season don't appear to be based on his stuff, but rather his approach to using it. The beauty of Hernandez, of course, is that at 20 years old he's got plenty of time to work out the kinks.

The funny thing is that only when compared to Hernandez could Liriano actually take a backseat (he even lacks the cool-sounding nickname). With a 2.51 ERA and 43-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 32.1 innings this season Liriano now has 76 strikeouts in 56 career innings, striking out 37 percent of the batters he's faced. Quickly entrenched in the rotation alongside Johan Santana, the Twins could boast the best one-two combination in baseball by midseason (or whenever they ditch Liriano's pitch count).

Mariners manager Mike Hargrove told reporters after the game that he'd "just as soon not see Liriano again," adding that "the Twins probably say the same thing about Hernandez." Probably true, but I'm looking forward to a couple decade's worth of rematches.

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